John Maxwell is one of the contemporary church’s leading authorities on leadership. For many years a pastor, today Maxwell’s ministry focuses on writing and teaching about Christian leadership through his organization and tape series, Injoy. He was interviewed recently by Preaching editor Michael Duduit.
Preaching: Your ministry focus has become leadership and leadership gifts. You are also a preacher and a former pastor. What do you see as the links between preaching and leadership? In what ways to you see the preaching task as a leadership task within the church?
Maxwell: All great leaders are effective communicators. It is the vehicle for the vision. For me to know where I want to take a group of people and not have the ability to cast that dream, preach that message, communicate that heart, makes the dream impossible. The vision won’t be accomplished.
So one of the reasons I have committed so much time, not only in teaching leadership but communication, is I think they are so compatible. You show me a great leader and I’ll show you a person that became a great leader because of his or her ability to communicate effectively. You can be a good preacher and not a good leader but you cannot be a good leader without being a good preacher or a good communicator. You have to be able to communicate the vision. What I love about it is that they all do it differently, there is not a certain style or a certain method. But they all have the ability to get their heart into the heart of their people. And that is always done through preaching and through communication.
Preaching: What are some of the particular approaches or methods in preaching that tend to strengthen our work in leadership?
Maxwell: I think the style is determined by the culture as far as effectiveness. You and I both know that in the United States you can go to seven or eight different areas and based on the culture you have to have a different style to be able to communicate effectively. I think the best example I can give you is my own life.
I grew up in Ohio and the midwest. When I pastored in Ohio, I built a fairly substantial church there. The preaching was exhortation. A lot of exhorting. People migrated to it because it gave them, I think, assurance and security. When I moved to southern California, that style didn’t work. I had to learn to relate, be relevant, ask questions, speak in more of an open manner. Less telling, more sharing, probably a little bit more transparency. A little bit more vulnerability. I couldn’t rely upon tradition there, so I had to adapt. What I have found is that great communicators can do that.
I’m now living in Atlanta, I’ve just moved here. I’m not pastoring here but if I was to communicate here, I would do it even differently here than I did in Ohio or would have done it in San Diego. So I think that culture determines the style. The great communicators understand that and have the ability to adapt to that culture and to relate to the people on the level where they are.
As I look at communicators with different styles, different methods, they all have one thing in common. I’ve seen this, I’ve watched it, I’ve observed it. All great communicators have the ability to connect. They can connect with their audience. You know, when I was a kid, I used to love to go down to the railroad tracks and watch them switch train cars. They back the engine up and you know how they bang the cars and they have a little ripple effect if there are seven or eight cars. But I learned early just because you bang the cars, it didn’t mean you couple with it. You could bang a car and that old engine could pull out without the cars; you had to couple it.
A lot of preaching is banging with the people. You’re banging them and you are hitting them. A lot of pastors think when they have done that then they have communicated — I’ve told them, I’ve told them. But they never connected with it. They never had that relational, emotional, spiritual connection with it. All great communicators, regardless of style or method, understand the connecting principle; they have the ability to connect with people, know where they are and connect there.
In leadership I do a lesson called the five levels of leadership. It is a very interesting lesson. It talks about the different levels that a leader is on with the organization which he or she leads. Very simply, the bottom level is what I call the position level — you come to a church, you have a title, you have an office, you have a job, you have a senior pastor. But, it’s is the lowest level of connecting or relating. The second level is the permission level. On that level, you not only have a position, or a title, but they begin to like you, and they begin to give you permission to enter into their lives and enter into their walk with God.
Then there is the production level. The permission level is built on the relationships, while the production level is built on results. And after you have been effective with the people for a period of time they will say, “well, you know I was saved under his ministry or I came to Christ or I was baptised in that church while he was there.” And that is a whole different level, then there is another level which is a production level, which you reproduce yourself in the lives of the people, you develop people, it is a personal development type of level. Anyway, on these levels, here’s what every time you communicate you go out and speak. You have people in your church on all five of these levels. So, therefore when they hear me speak, they relate to my message, not on what I said but based on what level they are on. That’s why pastors will go out and preach a message and one person will shake your hand and say greatest message I’ve ever heard pastor, changed my life. We’re going to help you support the building program or whatever. Somebody else walks out, and they are not coming back. All the guy wants is money.
They received the same message by the same man, the same time, the same words, the same place. What happened? Different levels. In communication, in preaching it is very important for the communicator to understand when he or she walks up in front of people that they have these different stations in life. So in my communication as a pastor I always made sure that I had levels of communication based on where the people were so that I could connect with every person there, based on not where I was or where the message was but where the people were.
One more thought on that: the great preachers, the great communicators, when they come out and speak, they understand that their first job is not to take the message and deliver it. The first job is to find out where the people are. Because the message can’t be delivered if nobody is at home.
I love communication. I love studying it, I love preaching, I love going out and trying to connect with the audience. I know what it’s like to connect with them, I know what it’s like not to connect with them. I know what it’s like to look out there and to say, “there’s nobody home,” but I also know what it’s like for them to look at me and to say, “nobody’s home.” When both of us are not at home then we are in trouble.!
Preaching: You talked about vision, communicating with vision. Is the “vision thing” (as George Bush termed it) a problem for the pastors — having the vision or articulating the vision?
Maxwell: Well, we really have two questions. The first one let me address, for the pastor to have a vision — it’s a huge problem. Without it the people perish. In my book, Developing the Leader Within You, I have a chapter that says that a vision is the indispensable requirement for every leader. I’ve never known a leader that didn’t have a vision. Really haven’t. Now I’ve known people that have had visions that weren’t leaders. They had too much buttermilk and onions before they went to bed last night. But I’ve never known a leader that didn’t have a vision. So, when a pastor comes to me and says, “Could you give me a vision for my church?” I tell them two things, “First, no, I can’t. Number two is you’re in trouble. You are in trouble because you can’t lead people without a vision.” So they are probably not a leader, they are probably making a statement about themselves more than they are about their church or who they are leading.
But, let’s talk about the pastor who has the vision but doesn’t seem to have the ability to cast that vision, and I’ve seen that. One of the greatest mistakes in working with pastors I find is this. They think that one sermon will solve every problem they’ve every had. So they put all their marbles in one bag and wonder why they didn’t achieve. In other words, they get up on Sunday morning and they have this red hot message. Something they want to do or somewhere they want to go and they’ll preach it and they will teach it and the people, it is hitting them cold. I mean some of them, again, based on the level, the five levels. The people in the top level they’ve never even heard the vision, but they will buy into it because they buy into the pastor. People on levels one, two, and three, they don’t. So what I tell pastors is, let me take you through the process.
Number one, your job is not to sell your vision, your job is to sell yourself. People don’t buy into vision until they buy into the leader. So the first step is, if they have bought into you, if you have integrity with those people, if you have a proven track record with those people, if they trust you, they’ll buy into your vision. So your first job is to sell yourself, not your vision.
The second thing to do is not to preach that message too early. Most visions are aborted because, again, pastors overestimate the event and underestimate the process. They think, Sunday morning, that’s the time I’ll preach this vision message. Everybody get on board and away we go! No. What they need to do is they need to begin working through the influencers of that congregation by sitting down like you and I right now. Having a lunch, having a breakfast, beginning to share their heart, getting input from them. Let the influencers not only hear the vision, but help mold the vision. Nothing happens until there is ownership. Whenever there gets to be ownership with the influencers — you don’t need to do this with the whole congregation — but if there is ownership with the influencers when you cast the vision, you’re not the only person there.
Whoever said it’s lonely at the top wasn’t a leader. Have you ever thought of this? Think about it. Leaders are not alone. How do you define a leader? You define a leader by the type people that are around them. The only people that I know that have been lonely at the top are people that have decided to take a trip without anybody. And so what you do in your vision casting is, you bring these people around you. You include the people until it is a “we” issue. What is great is the influencers will bring the rest of the people along. But never cast the vision in a message until you have given process time with that vision to the influencers. Two things will happen. Ownership and maturity. I have never had an idea that when I shared it, that the person I shared it with didn’t compliment that idea and make it better. For me to go to the pulpit with a vision that I’ve just held between God and me, that is naive. I want to go with the vision with God and me and key players who have the heart for this church. Now you’ve got a mature vision as such. Does that make sense?
Preaching: There is a difference between a boss and a leader.
Maxwell: I believe that. I think that is exactly right. A boss is trying to drive people. You define leadership with people around you.
Preaching: What do you enjoy most about preaching?
Maxwell: Lives are changed. I live for that. The thing I love about pastoring is you get to live with the people. And the greatest joy I had on Sunday morning is looking out in the congregation and there is Joe. Joe is in there worshiping with his wife. Four years ago, Joe wasn’t a believer, marriage was on the rocks. Now Joe is a lay person, using his spiritual gifts for God. The growth of the people is what I love the most.
That is what I miss the most. When people say now that you are not pastoring what do you miss the most, very simple. I don’t get to see people grow. They write me letters but I don’t get to see the growth like you can see when you live with them from day to day. So, the growth of the people is the reason I did it.
Preaching to me is not an end in itself. I believe that for the great communicators, their whole perspective of communicating is to change lives and to move people from one point to the other with the assistance of God. People that are speakers, their goal is to look good. There is a world of difference between those two. A speaker, when he or she is lone, their whole issue is: how did I sound, did people like me? A communicator preacher, their whole perspective is: did it change a life? Communicators are other focused, speakers are inward focused.
And I think because of that, the results are totally different, too. If you preach to change lives, the odds are there will be lives changed. If you preach to impress people the odds are you will impress people. So what are you in there for?
Preaching: What is the toughest thing about preaching for you?
Maxwell: The accountability. I had a guy one time tell me, he said, “John, it must be fun to speak to Promise Keepers or at the Southern Baptist Convention. And that just must be a real kick.” I said you don’t know what I have to go through before I do that. To whom much is given, much is to be required.
There are times when I feel the weight of not taking myself too seriously. I don’t do that. But there are just so many people out there that are going to touch lives — because I deal with leaders all the time I’m always dealing in what I call the multiplying factor. If I’m teaching the leadership conference and I have a thousand leaders out there, I’m not dealing with a thousand people; I’m probably dealing with a hundred thousand people. And so I feel the responsibility of that, the accountability to know that I’ll answer for that some day and that I’d better give it my best shot.
When I left Skyline (Wesleyan Church) two years ago, I could look at that congregation in the eye and I could say with great integrity, I never short cutted you on a sermon. I wrote all of them out, studied, pre-pared, prayed. Now, I didn’t always preach good messages because I’m human, I’m not good all the time. But I never short cutted the people. I always give it my best shot.
When I was done, I could say there are a lot of other guys who could have done better than I. But, I did the best that I can. I didn’t play golf each week, and goof off and give thos “simple sermons” and write down three points and wing it. I am aware of the accountability and responsibility of speaking, not only to the listeners but to the people who bring me in. Think of their risk factor. People who bring you in are standing up there and introducing you and saying. “I’m betting my life on this guy that he’s good, that he will help you.” So I feel a tremendous responsibility to God to the person who brought me in. The greatest compliment I ever get is from the person who invited me in, who arranged the expense of it, the planning of it. And they come and say, “John, you did exactly what I was wanting to see happen.” It just came off right and I say, “Yes!” You know what I mean. So I never want to short cut God, don’t want to short cut the person who brings me in. And I don’t want to short cut the people.
Preaching: You can’t talk about leadership without being a student of culture. As you look at the changes taking place in our western culture, what changes do you see taking place? What trends do you think are taking place in terms of communication and particularly in preaching as we move into the next century.
Maxwell: We deal with a culture that is just not going to sit in the pew and accept what we’re saying. Biblically it is illiterate. It has many more options in life than my generation had. A lot more than what my father’s generation had. No longer does the pastor have the esteemed role in the community that at one time he or she would have had, nor does the church.
I think communicators and preachers today have to be better than they had to be two generations ago. Here’s why. A generation or two ago you could get up and you could preach and you could basically say “the Word of God says” and you were off running. Ninety-five percent of that audience bought into the foundation which you were building that message on. Today that is not true. Today, before you can sell the congregation on the integrity of the Bible, you have sell the congregation on the integrity of your life. Preachers today have to first carry it in their actions and in their life, in their character, in their conduct. If that audience buys into that then they say, “O.K., now I’m willing to look into the Bible.” That used to not happen. So, I think it behooves us to live a more Godly, holy life.
There has been a moral fallout in clergy in the last ten to twelve years. One of the few good things that has come out of it is that it has caused all of us to not be as arrogant, probably scared is a better word. More humble, probably much slower to allow anyone to put us upon a pedestal. Less role playing today.
Here’s the transition that I’m seeing. Here’s what really excites me. I was over at Randy Polk’s church (Perimeter Presbyterian) Sunday because we are now in Atlanta. We are just now getting settled and wanting to look for our own church home. He’s got over three or four thousand people. Here’s this guy who is very cerebral, good thinker. Tremendous character, integrity in his life. I watched him very carefully unfold the Word. I am very proud of this young man who with real integrity carefully weighs his words to this congregation. And the reason he does is so that he knows that there is a questioning spirit out there. And so he must be right on. So there are some differences, some major differences. But I think it makes preaching better, we are communicating better.
One more thing. If the message isn’t relevant, people will not have a passion to pursue it. At one time people were drawn to passion alone. Now, they are drawn to passion — they get passionate hearts for God — only when they see the relevance of it. Pastors should trust themselves outside of the church environment a little bit more. We need to pick up what’s happening and where culture is. I’d like the world to be able to step into the church and feel comfortable, not because the message is compromised but because it is relevant and there is passion that comes from relevance — the hearts that will be stirred and moved and the conviction that happens is based on the fact that it connects. It connects to the people.
Now that I’m not pastoring I go to churches and hear preaching more than I used to hear. And I think I was a little naive. I thought preaching was a little better than it is. And when I’m listening to these pastors a lot of times I want to stand up and say, “Stop for a moment, who are you talking to? You are not connecting, but you have a great message here. Let’s back up for a moment.” How are we going to take what you are saying and connect it with Joe over here? There is just a little lack of awareness, I think, of where people are in their journey and what’s happening to them.
Truth, coupled with relevance, makes a message hot. Relevance without truth has no conviction or changing power. Truth without relevance just doesn’t connect. So, I would just really encourage pastors to spend more time with the world. Not to become worldly but to spend more time in the world to know who we are trying to reach with this good message that we have.
Preaching: How does the preacher effectively make that connection with Joe? To move from the biblical text to make the connection with the world in which Joe lives?
Maxwell: I think the main reason we don’t make connections is because it is a world we are not comfortable with. And I think it takes time. When I was pastoring, I had unsaved friends, non-churched friends that I would connect with continually. Find out where they are, what they were thinking. Ask them to come to church. The greatest critique that I could receive from them is when I was done that they understood it and it helped them. They’d say, “you know, I understood what you were saying.”
I think communicators and preachers are too complex. We need to go back to simplicity. I’ve always said that a communicator takes something complicated and makes it simple. An educator takes something simple and makes it complicated. I think we need to relate and get down to where the people are and simplicity is good. Simplicity has tremendous power.

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About The Author

Michael Duduit is the founding publisher and editor of Preaching magazine. He is also the founding Dean of the new College of Christian Studies and Professor of Christian Ministry at Anderson University in Anderson, South Carolina. Michael is author and editor of several books, including the Handbook of Contemporary Preaching (Broadman & Holman Press), Joy in Ministry (Baker Books), Preaching With Power (Baker) and Communicate With Power (Baker). From 1996 until 2000 he served as editor of the Abingdon Preaching Annual series. His email newsletter, PreachingNow, is read each week by more than 40,000 pastors and church leaders in the U.S. and around the world. He is founder and director of the National Conference on Preaching and the International Congress on Preaching, which has been held in 1997 at Westminster Chapel in London, 2002 at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and 2007at Cambridge. He has been a pastor and associate pastor, has served a number of churches as interim pastor, and speaks regularly for churches, colleges and conferences.

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